Larval Phthalate Soup

Samuel Daughenbaugh, DePauw University


The Approach: In my previous post, I described a group of chemical additives called phthalates and their potential impact on the development of sea urchin larvae. The plastic industry uses several phthalates that vary in chemical structure and toxicity levels. One way phthalates differ in structure is by their size. I am studying the effects of three phthalates with different molecule sizes — DMP (small), DBP (medium), and DEHP (large) — on mortality (lethal effect) and larval skeletal growth (sublethal effect).

My first major challenge was to dissolve the chemicals in seawater. As hydrophobic liquids, phthalates only mix with water molecules at very low concentrations; larger types (longer side chains) are less soluble. By dissolving each chemical in acetone, I am able to get DMP into seawater at 1000 parts per million (ppm), or 0.01%, and DBP and DEHP at 1 ppm. I am testing 5 concentrations of each chemical in addition to an acetone control (no phthalate), and a seawater control (no phthalate or acetone).


Experimental jars with stirring paddles

Once the chemicals are in solution, I spawn male and female sea urchins via electric voltage and collect their sperm and eggs. Then, I fertilized the eggs and introduce them to experimental jars where they then begin to develop into larvae. Small paddles stir the water to increase the oxygen level and keep the larvae suspended. After growing the larvae for two days, a period before they start to depend on food, I transfer them into small tubes, preserve and store them in a freezer.

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Normal 4-arm pluteus larvae (Photo taken by Jaclyn Caruso)


To measure and categorize larvae into different stages of development, I observe them under a microscope that can record landmark points on the larval body in three dimensions. After determining the proportion of individuals that failed to develop to the normal 2 or 4-arm pluteus stage (pictured below), I use the landmarks to calculate the lengths of different skeletal features to determine how much the larvae had grown. At the end of each trial, I will have observed hundreds to thousands of dead larvae and once all of them have been counted and measured, I can begin to analyze the data and learn whether the phthalates are having a significant effect on their development.


This project is supported by Dr. Robert Podolsky and the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.

Life in Plastic, It’s not Fantastic

Samuel Daughenbaugh, DePauw University

2DA71FE7-975A-4AA8-8A78-DF3D1E545F05The Problem: We live in a plastic world. Plastics have saturated all aspects of our daily lives and, as a consequence, have also entered the natural world.  About 8.3 billion metric tons have been produced in the past 60 years, playing a pivotal role in the advancement of modern society (Parker, 2018). Although they are used to create many things we enjoy and benefit from, there are serious consequences for the health of humans and the environment that are associated with their use.

We have found plastics in unexpected places, everywhere from human guts to the most remote locations on earth (Schwabl, 2018; Woodall, 2014). Plastics have a long list of negative effects on living organisms, but their impact in the ocean is of special concern. Pictures of turtles with straws up their noses, bottle caps spilling out of dead bird stomachs, and penguins strangled in plastic beverage rings are often posted on social media sites. Less widely known are the chemical additives that leach from plastics. Phthalates are one such group of additives that pose threats to the health of humans and marine life.


Current Fort Johnson REU Interns (Julianna Duran not pictured) collecting plastic and sand dollars on Otter Island. (Photo credit: R. Podolsky)

Phthalates have been valuable to the plastic industry because they promote flexibility and durability in many plastics (EPA, 2017). An astounding 470 million pounds of phthalates are used in the United States every year (EPA, 2017). This presents a significant problem because phthalates interfere with the production of important hormones that regulate growth and metabolism in humans and other animals (Boas et al., 2012).

This summer I am exploring the effects of three different phthalates– dimethyl phthalate (DMP), di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP), and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP)–on the larval development of marine invertebrates, using the purple-spined sea urchin (Arbacia punctulata) as a model. Sea urchin larvae float freely in the water column for an extended period of time and, therefore, are vulnerable to many marine pollutants.


Purple-spined sea urchin (Arbacia punctulata)

Sea urchins are an important model because they are closely related to humans. Both humans and sea urchins use a signaling hormone called thyroxine, which is especially important for growth in early developmental stages (Heyland et al., 2006). Exposure to phthalates can disrupt the production of thyroxine. Additionally, larvae are very important to study because they form the base of food webs. Being at the bottom of the food chain means they feed animals at higher levels, many of which humans rely on for protein. Therefore, understanding how phthalates affect sea urchin growth and metabolism can lead to new insights into how these pollutants directly and indirectly impact human health.


I would like to thank my mentor, Dr. Robert Podolsky, for his continued support, guidance, and encouragement. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.


Boas, M., Feldt-Rasmussen, U., & Main, K. M. (2012). Thyroid effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, 355(2), 240-248. 

Environmental Protection Agency (Ed.). (2017). Phthalates. America’s Children and the Environment, 3, 1-19.

Heyland, A., Price, D. A., Bodnarova-Buganova, M., & Moroz, L. L. (2006). Thyroid hormone metabolism and peroxidase function in two non-chordate animals. Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution, 306B(6), 551-566.

Parker, L. (2018, December 18). A whopping 91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Retrieved from

Schwabl, P. (2018, October). Assessment of Microplastic Concentrations in Human Stool. Conference on Nano and microplastics in technical and freshwater systems, Monte    Verità, Ascona, Switzerland.

Woodall, L. C., Sanchez-Vidal, A., Canals, M., Paterson, G. L., Coppock, R., Sleight, V., . . . Thompson, R. C. (2014). The deep sea is a major sink for microplastic debris. Royal      Society Open Science, 1(4), 140317-140317. doi:10.1098/rsos.140317

9,000 Larvae Later…

Jaclyn Caruso, Salem State University

Me UrchinFindings: In my previous post, I talked about how counting larval stages and measuring their skeletons could help us determine the lethal and sublethal effects of preservatives used in cosmetics and other personal care products on development. What we found was pretty surprising.

After two days of development in normal conditions, sea urchin larvae should be in the pluteus stage and have 2 or 4 arms. The arms are important because they are surrounded by bands of cilia that help the larva swim and feed. In the controls and at the lowest concentrations that we tested (0.1, 1, and 10 parts per million), the majority of the larvae successfully reached this stage. However, things got interesting at about 32 ppm.

We found that at concentrations at and above 32 ppm, the larvae generally grew shorter arms, had a smaller body size, and were more asymmetric. Any of these abnormalities could potentially have fatal consequences for the larvae. We also found that at high enough concentrations of the preservatives, development will fail completely. At concentrations of 1000 ppm, almost 100% of the fertilized eggs that we added to the jars didn’t develop past the early cleavage stages. This means that development was stopped almost instantly.

If you remember back to my first post, we wanted to test how parabens compared to the newer alternatives they were replaced with. Of the three preservatives we tested, the paraben caused changes in growth and failure of development at the lowest concentrations. The other two preservatives fared slightly better, suggesting that the personal care products industry may have made a good decision by switching. However, because we saw harmful effects in all three preservatives, we can’t say that they are completely safe for marine life at these concentrations.

This summer has taught me a ton about scientific research. I always expected it to require a lot of time, patience, and dedication, and my expectations were absolutely confirmed. In total, we counted and categorized 8,919 larvae and measured 2,224. That’s a lot of long hours at the microscope, and a lot of data to analyze. But, our results were definitely worth it, and I’m greatly looking forward to my next research experience!

Larval Stages

Left: normal preserved plutei in the 4- or 2-arm stage. Right: abnormal preserved individuals with incorrectly shaped skeletons or at early stages of development. Jaclyn Caruso, 2018


Thank you to Dr. Bob Podolsky (CofC) for his mentorship, Dr. Cheryl Woodley (NOAA) for providing her procedures and resources, and Pete Meier (CofC) for teaching me the ropes of setting up aquaria. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.